Example: in Chinese, you can't* speak of siblings in a general term, and in turn you have to enumerate all 4 combinations of sex and age: 兄弟姐妹 ( older brother, younger brother, older sister, younger sister )

Can you name other examples like this, and do anyone have any clues or explanations about why is this?

I think it might be in part due to Chinese being a very old language and carrying some aspects of more primitive ways of speech from long ago, but it's just speculation.

* as far as I know

3 Answers 3


Your question is a bit hard to answer because you can't say a word doesn't exist just because it's a combination of several related characters. This is how most words are made in Chinese. It would be like saying that you can't speak of psychology in a general term in English because you have to describe what it is every time (psychology = psyche + logia (study)).

Basically, 兄弟姐妹 is not really an enumeration, it's a word, just like 同学 is not a description but also a word. How these words are composed is mostly incidental (although it's often relatively logical and consistent).

To go back to your question, other examples of "enumeration-based" words I can think of are 夫妇 (couple), 父母 (parents)

  • 3
    I would also argue in English we usually say "Do you have any brothers [and|or] sisters?" rather than "Do you have any siblings?". 兄弟 is brothers and 姐妹 is sisters. The order is just status from oldest to youngest.
    – going
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 10:41
  • 1
    Yes I realize many languages lack levels of abstraction in some way or another, sometimes I fail to abstract myself from languages I take for granted (Spanish, English) when I look at Chinese.
    – Petruza
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 15:47

I don't think it's a good idea to analogize Chinese from English, as 景洛弘 said. Actually, there is a word which can mean "sibling". It's 同胞(tóng bāo).同胞 could mean:

  1. people born of the same parents.
  2. people from the same race or nation(here, the mothercountry is used as an analogy of "parents")

But in general, we don't use this word with the 1st meaning, instead, 兄弟姐妹 is more common to see.

Why should we use one or two special characters to express "Sibling" in Chinese, as in English? It has its own advantages. In Chinese, you could say

我们是姐妹 We are sisters.

我们是兄弟 We are brothers.

However, you could say,


In this case, if you are male, the listener will know that you are the younger borther and the other is your elder sister.

We also have words like

骨肉 Literally means: bone and flesh. Actually means: parents and children

as in words

骨肉团圆 The parents reunite with their children.

In English, could you express these meanings with one word respectively? I mean,

我们是姐弟 We are [?]

骨肉团圆 [?] gets reunited.

  • +1 i love how you gave so many useful, interesting examples.
    – magnetar
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 14:01
  • @magnetar It's my honor to hear that.
    – Huang
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 15:29
  • 兄弟姐妹 (Xiōngdì jiěmèi) is the most common way I have been taught to talk about one siblings, so there are idiomatic ways of addressing things in Chinese that might only be known once you gain higher master of the language. Commented Jan 4, 2012 at 3:55

The word 'siblings' in English is a modern (1903) revival of an ancient term for relatives and kinsmen by an anthropologist. English didn't have a single word for 'brothers and sisters' before that. So it's hard to fault Chinese on this one.

  • Thanks but I don't think fault has anything to do with my question. I wouldn't ever speak in that terms about linguistics, as suggesting one language has any fault or any language is better or worse than any other. I'm in fact studying Chinese because I like it very much.
    – Petruza
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 15:59
  • It's my fault for using the word 'fault'. I think my point is that this particular situation isn't a special feature of Chinese. Until very recently (one hundred years isn't such a long time) English was exactly the same. (German on the other hand, has 'Gebrüder', which does not appear to be a newly coined term, for 'brothers and sisters').
    – Bathrobe
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 20:38
  • Levels of abstraction in vocabulary can differ significantly between languages. For example, the Chinese word 汽车 is broader than the English word 'car' or 'automobile' since 汽车 can include trucks. Of course, English can use words like 'motor vehicle', but this then includes motorbikes and tractors. 'Motor vehicle' is thus probably closer to the Chinese 机动车.
    – Bathrobe
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 20:39

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